College & Workforce Readiness

Study: Most U.S. Students Couldn’t Master Common Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — December 06, 2010 1 min read
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We’ve talked a lot about the common standards in this space, and there has been a vague sense that many states and districts will have a heavy lift to get students over the bar outlined in those standards.

Now we have a study that attempts to quantify that challenge, and the results are quite a wake-up call. And it isn’t one of those soft, hit-the-snooze-button wake-up calls.

The bottom line is that only one-third to one-half of the country’s 11th graders have the skills and knowledge to be considered college-ready on the new standards, according to the report by ACT. When you burrow in, the numbers get worse. Specific subsets of math and English/language arts skills have left three-quarters or more of our students behind. (Particularly big ouches: science literacy for all students, and the reading and math skills of African American students.)

See my story for a full discussion of the findings and a link to the report itself.

Go ahead and argue that we knew this stuff already. I won’t disagree; we know that too many kids are getting—to quote former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in “Waiting for Superman”—a “really crappy education.” But still, the bar graphs make you wince.

And go ahead and argue with the findings based on methodology if you will: Is the way the ACT came up with estimates of proficiency cutoff scores legitimate? Especially since the ACT itself, rather than outside experts, decided which of its exam items best captured the common-core content? One expert I interviewed raised a question about this, although overall he commended the study and found it sound. And even lead writers of the common standards themselves told me that the study’s findings square with their sense of the location and depth of students’ weaknesses.

So the new study is an opening salvo as states and districts get started on the really hard work of putting these standards into practice. Exactly what will it take to transform them into solid instructional tools and practice, and to figure out exactly how well students are getting it? That’s the common-standards question of the moment.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.